When looking at shortstops through the years, the Royals haven't lit the world on fire at the position. Since 1997 when Jay Bell manned the position, it has been especially bleak. From Mendy Lopez to Yuniesky Betancourt and everyone in between, times have been rough at the important position. A blip on the radar occured in 2003 when Angel Berroa won Rookie of the Year. Even that was a sad mirage as Berroa quickly disintegrated into a shell of his 2003 self. As the 2011 offseason looms near, questions still remain about the position. Alcides Escobar is a force in the field, but will his defense remain enough of a positive to make up for his severe deficiences at the plate? Although the list at shortstop is long thanks to the last dozen or so years, one player stands out, and that player is Neifi Perez.
Perez was signed as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic in 1993 by the expansion Rockies and quickly made his way through their system to become their starting shortstop halfway into the 1997 season. Given the environment of Coors Field and baseball in general in the late 90s, his offensive numbers were not that impressive. Even so, 1997 would prove to be the pinnacle of success at the plate, and by a wide margin, for Perez.
The peak of his career that was 1997 kept Perez in the league until 2007 for reasons largely unknown as he posted a career WAR of -0.6 and never saw a seaon total above 1.5. Somehow Perez managed to start at least 120 games eight times in his eleven year career. Whether this is an indictment on the talent level at the position during these years or on the teams that chose to employ and regularly play Perez is a tough question to answer. One fact does remain though, on July 25th of 2001, the Royals decided to trade for the headache that was Neifi Perez.
Based on the numbers Perez had put up in his career through July of 2001 and the growing salary he required, one would think Perez should've come cheap. Alas, this was unfortunately not the case. No, the cost the Royals decided to pay for Perez was a 27 year old rightfielder coming off a legitimate All Star season. This player was Jermaine Dye, a fan favorite who heard chants of "Dye-no-mite" after succsessful at bats. To make matters worse, after acquiring Dye from the Royals, the Rockies promptly traded him to Oakland for three prospects. Sitting in Kansas City, all the Royals had in the end was Neifi Perez.
The honeymoon, if there even was one, didn't last long for Perez in Kansas City. Reports came out that part of the reason, if his play alone wasn't a big enough one as is, the Rockies were willing to trade Perez was because he had rejected a 4 year/17 million contract extension with the team. Seeing as the Royals had just traded franchise cornerstone players Johnny Damon and Dye within six months of each other due to salary concerns, this didn't bode well for a long, healthy marriage between Perez and the Royals. Perez's play never made this a factor, but it was not a bright start.
Leaving the thin air of Denver behind, Perez's offensive numbers took a nosedive the moment he put on a Royals uniform. In the two months he was a Royal in the 2001 season, Perez posted an almost unthinkable OPS+ of 49. His OPS dropped 191 points from his earlier season form as a Rockie, and his ISO, while never spectacular, dropped 88 points to a truly jaw dropping 61.
The 2002 season for Perez in Kansas City was an unmitigated disaster. When the Royals traded for him, they thought they were getting a 26 year old shortstop of the future. While this seemed a doomed plan from the get go based on Perez's career up to that point, it was at least thought his age wasn't something to be concerned about. But, after rule changes applying to work visas went into effect after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Perez's age came into question. Having to now supply a birth certificate for his visa, it was learned that Perez wasn't who he said he was. Perez tried to wiggle his way out of the problem, going so far as to not even show up for his arbitration hearings as he fought to hide the truth. In the end, it turned out Perez was a full two years older than his purported age. Allard Baird, then the Royals GM, didn't seem to have a problem with this. After Perez admitted his true age to Baird in a meeting during Spring Training, Baird opined that "as far as the value of a player, we don't look at it any differently. I would be concerned if he were 30, 32 years old. It showed a lot that he came to me [and told me]." Score one for Baird?
After the dust settled about his age, Perez put together a terrible season for the Royals in 2002, likely one of the worst seasons in recent memory. While his bat continued, as expected, to be barely playable (his OPS+ in June was 5, yes, 5), his defense became just as bad. His UZR rating went from +13 in 2001 to the complete opposite end of the spectrum at -13 in 2002. Coupled with the disappearance of his bat the second he entered the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium and suddenly Perez was a -2.9 WAR player. -2.9!!!!! (Yes, that deserves five exclamation points.) To top off the raging storm of ineptitude was the fact that the Royals were paying him a salary of 4.1 million that season. I guess it could've been wose, as the Royals won the arbitration hearing the previous offseason in which Perez asked for five million. Not much of a saving grace, as Perez's value in 2002 was -13 million based on his play, meaning he was worth -8.9 million dollars for the Royals that season.
If his play wasn't enough, Perez's attitude started to come into question throughout the 2002 season. In May, he vented to the press about his unhappiness with being benched saying "he came to play". As the season wore on things only got worse and came to a head in September when Perez refused to enter a game at Pena's request as a ninth inning defensive replacement. To Perez's defense, he said "it was just a joke". Just a joke, that seems to accurately describe the fifteen month saga that was Neifi Perez's time as a Royal.